Danielle Lansing: Connecting to Tribal Communities through Teaching

December 15, 2022

“I’ve always known the value of connecting with the community and its families,” says Dr. Danielle Lansing. She brings this conviction to her work as a member of the early childhood faculty at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, NM. “SIPI is a tribal college and part of the Bureau of Indian Education, so all our students are members of federally recognized tribes,” she explains. And her mission is to provide these Indigenous educators with both teaching skills and cultural competence. The early childhood curriculum at SIPI gives rising teachers a grounding in mainstream educational theories and guides them in pursuing community-based projects that include developing Native language programs and culturally responsive curricula within their diverse tribal communities.

“A lot of our work in and outside the classroom focuses on helping our college students make connections to the beliefs and values of their communities,” Lansing says. “We want the students to think about how they can make early learning culturally relevant to the Native children they serve. So, our classes include specific content on Indigenous thought leaders that will prepare students to help Native children take pride in their culture and who they are.”

The point of the ECE curriculum in Lansing’s program is to form early childhood teachers who really listen to their community and make its culture part of their identity as professionals in ECE. “That was part of my own coursework in school since I’ve always had a keen interest in Native American studies, and it’s been a part of my research as a scholar,” Lansing says. Over the past decade, she’s received many grants from the American Indian College Fund to explore ways for strengthening systems of care and learning for Native families and children.

For example, a few years back she was the project director of the Wakanyeja “Sacred Little Ones” Tribal College Readiness by Third Grade Initiative, an early childhood program that focused on having Native families share their hopes and dreams for young learners. “We used that information to help teachers develop culturally relevant experiences at our lab school on campus,” Lansing explains.

And her interest in the subject is not simply academic. Lansing’s personal commitment to preserving Native language and culture goes far back to her own formative years as a member of the Navajo tribe. “I spent a lot of time with my grandparents when I was a child,” she recalls. “That’s when I learned to speak Navajo and that’s when I had my first experiences of education. My connection to my community’s language and ideals has always been an important part of me,” she says. And it’s something she brings into her professional life. “I’m able to identify with my college students and understand what it’s like to be an Indigenous teacher who carries their values, language and culture to a classroom of young children.”

That’s where Lansing began her career in education. “I taught kindergarten through grade three for 15 years,” she says. “During that time, I always had an appreciation of how important it is to partner with families in the whole development of their children. And while I was working in K-3, I hosted student teachers and practicum teachers in my classroom. I really enjoyed the reflection, dialogue and collaboration I had with them,” Lansing says, “and the experience of working with them led me to switch to teaching college. I wanted to support Native college students in entering the early learning field because I know how much children want to see themselves in their teachers.”

And Native children are far from a homogeneous group, as Lansing points out. Neither are the students she serves at SIPI. “We’re very diverse in terms of our community connections, language and culture. That leads to interesting group discussions in which the college students learn each other’s perspectives on serving different Native groups in both urban and rural settings. The result is an intertribal learning community that is very important for our students.”

So is the classroom work students do while they’re working toward their associate degree in ECE or earning their Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™. “I teach courses that lead to the CDA®,” Lansing says. And she values the way the credential helps the students connect theory to practice. “While the students are pursuing their CDA, they’re working in Head Start and center-based programs to earn their experience hours. They seem to do a really good job of translating how the philosophies and theories they’re getting in class apply to real life,” Lansing says. “And I think that increases their motivation and sense of purpose.”

Also important are the co-curricular projects that are part of SIPI’s early childhood program. “One of the things we have the students do is talk to community leaders who they see as role models in supporting young Native children,” Lansing says. “We’ve developed class projects that we implement at our lab school, where some of our students gain their experience hours. The students also get to do observations, talk to teachers at the lab school, and participate in the community-based events that we sponsor for families.”

Parent training and participation is an important part of SIPI’s program, as Lansing explains. “And we let families tell us what they want help with instead of the other way around. We talk with parents at committee meetings, open the floor to their suggestions and follow their lead. This results in collaboration and dialogue that have led to storytelling sessions with Native storytellers, cultural sharing nights and talks on the importance of early dental care. We’ve also had presentations on couponing and financial planning. We’ve participated in fun runs and walks that the parents enjoyed, and we’ve had an expert come and give us advice on planting and harvesting in our lab school’s community garden.”

They grow crops like corn, melon and squash at the school. They also grow the number of Indigenous educators that local Native communities need, Lansing explains, and she finds it exciting to see the parents also pursuing their education. “For example,” she recalls, “we had a mom who enrolled her son in the lab school and was also pursuing her associate degree in early childhood education. She graduated, then moved on to earn her bachelor’s and wound up becoming a teacher at the lab school. Now she’s going to be hosting some students in her classroom and it’s really gratifying to see her come full circle and become part of our program as a teacher.”

The tribes need more people like this mom, as Lansing points out. “So, we’re always trying to develop teachers from the local community who have knowledge that’s relevant to the community’s families and children. One of the community’s priorities now is for programs to include teaching of Native languages,” as she explains. “It’s on the minds of our communities because they want to make sure their languages and cultures live on into the future.”

So far, the effort to provide education that embraces Native traditions has been taking place mainly at the K-12 level, Lansing says. “But now communities are developing a wider range of privately run ECE programs. As we broaden the scope of early learning, there’s high demand for a work force that combines competence and cultural knowledge like the SIPI students who are earning their CDA and associate degree in ECE,” she explains.

“Our early childhood training fosters change for Native communities by giving tribes the opportunity to develop programs that meet their unique needs and align with their values,” Lansing says. And the work her program does to partner with parents helps foster needed changes in early learning. “Tribal communities want to develop programs on their terms instead of simply following a model curriculum. As they develop the next generation in their communities, they want to produce citizens who will preserve tribal culture. So, it’s important for the tribes to have a say in the education of their children. They need to have a seat at the table when we’re determining what educational theories and systems will be most beneficial for tribal children.”

That’s the point of A Place to Be Navajo, a book that has inspired Lansing and shaped how she developed as a teacher and a person. It’s the history of the Rough Rock Demonstration School, the first community-controlled school to teach in the Native language and to produce a body of quality children’s literature by and about Native people. “The book relates how education was placed in the hands of community leaders,” Lansing explains, “so the school became a place that expressed the community’s hopes and dreams for empowerment and self-determination.”

A community’s future depends on the education of its young children. And SIPI’s ECE program is training teachers who can give children a sense of confidence and a strong foundation for success, Lansing explains. “We’re committed to having our students understand that their connection to Native culture and language is a source of strength and an important part of their growth in the early childhood profession.” Teachers like this can give back to the tribes and help them move ahead. They can make school a place where the tribes’ sacred little ones will learn and grow in a way that truly builds on who they are.

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